SANTA ANA, Calif. >> Nathaly Uribe has all the papers she needs to get a work permit — something the 17-year-old daughter of a construction worker only dreamed of growing up as an illegal immigrant in the United States.
The high school senior said she hopes a federal program beginning today and defers deportation for illegal immigrants will make it easier to get a decent job and help pay for college.
“This is my country. It’s where my roots are,” said Uribe, who moved from Chile when she was a toddler and lives in Glen Burnie, Md. “It feels great to know that the country that I call home finally accepted me.”
Thousands of young illegal immigrants lined up today hoping for the right to work legally in America without being deported. The Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals could expand the rights of more than 1 million young illegal immigrants by giving them work permits, though they would not obtain legal residency here or a path to citizenship.
At least 13,000 people stood in line in Chicago, clutching reams of paperwork, for a workshop led by immigrant rights advocates at the city’s Navy Pier. Hundreds of potential applicants waited outside nonprofit offices in Los Angeles for help filing paperwork to open the door to the staples of success in America — a work permit, and then later a Social Security number and driver’s license.
“It’s something I have been waiting for since I was two years old,” said Bupendra Ram, a 25-year-old communications graduate student in Fullerton, Calif., who still needs supporting documents from his Fiji Islands home before he can apply. “This offers us an opportunity to fulfill the dreams I’ve had since I was a child.”
Less than three months before an expected tight presidential election, the new immigration program is mired in controversy. Republican critics accuse President Barack Obama of drafting the plan to boost his political standing with Latinos ahead of November’s vote and say the program favors illegal immigrants over unemployed American citizens during dismal economic times.
To be eligible, immigrants must prove they arrived in the United States before they turned 16, are 30 or younger, have been living in the country at least five years and are in school or graduated or served in the military. They cannot have been convicted of certain crimes or otherwise pose a safety threat.
Initial concerns by immigrant rights groups that federal authorities might take a tough approach on applications or that a Republican presidential victory could unravel applicants’ gains have largely been pushed aside by massive interest from thousands of young people eager to work.
In Los Angeles, one immigrant rights’ group started hosting hourly information sessions over the last month to keep up with the frenzy. The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles has handed out 12,000 information packets about the program and is encouraging all eligible immigrants to apply as long as they have stayed out of legal trouble, said Angelica Salas, the organization’s director.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney does not support so-called Dream Act legislation for illegal immigrants who attend college — a key group that Obama aims to reach with this program. The former Massachusetts governor has also criticized the deferred action program but has not said it he would reverse it, pledging instead an unspecified “civil but resolute” long-term fix to illegal immigration.
So far, the measure has won favor for Obama along Latinos — many who view immigration as a litmus test when choosing a political candidate, said Manuel Pastor, director of the University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.